Face of Defense: Wounded Warrior Flourishes as Senior NCO

FORT BENNING, Ga. — Army Sgt. 1st Class Ray Castil­lo is again flour­ish­ing as a senior non­com­mis­sioned offi­cer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., but that almost didn’t seem pos­si­ble two years ago after he was wound­ed on the bat­tle­field.

seven-week Maneuver Senior Leaders Course on Fort Benning, Ga
Army Sgt. 1st Class Ray Castil­lo, who re-enlist­ed after he lost both legs after an ambush in Iraq two years ago while on his 10th com­bat deploy­ment is set to grad­u­ate next week from the sev­en-week Maneu­ver Senior Lead­ers Course on Fort Ben­ning, Ga.
U.S. Army pho­to by Vince Lit­tle
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Castil­lo was on his 10th com­bat deploy­ment with the 75th Ranger Reg­i­ment in north­ern Iraq when he was severe­ly injured by an impro­vised explo­sive device, injuries so seri­ous that both his legs had to be ampu­tat­ed above the knee. Today, he’s still a ded­i­cat­ed sol­dier and is set to grad­u­ate next week from the sev­en-week Maneu­ver Senior Lead­ers Course offered here.

“Just because I lost my limbs doesn’t mean I can’t give my expe­ri­ence and my knowl­edge to oth­er guys, (but) I under­stood even­tu­al­ly I was going to be behind a desk,” said Castil­lo, now an oper­a­tions sergeant with 2nd Bat­tal­ion. “There’s noth­ing I could’ve done about that. I still want­ed to be in the mil­i­tary, I still want­ed to con­tribute.”

The inci­dent occurred Feb. 9, 2009, near Mosul. Castil­lo was a pla­toon sergeant with the regiment’s 2nd Bat­tal­ion with the unit in pur­suit of a high-val­ue tar­get. The sol­diers had dis­mount­ed and were approach­ing the objec­tive on foot when they got ambushed.

A com­mand-det­o­nat­ed impro­vised explo­sive device hit Castil­lo.

“It was real quick,” he recalled. “(The ene­my) hid it real­ly well in the ground. I got to that loca­tion, and it just went off. I blacked out for a short peri­od of time, but I remem­ber the explo­sion going off and fly­ing through the air.”

Cov­ered in blood, Castil­lo went into shock. A pla­toon medic treat­ed him at the scene and he got evac­u­at­ed with­in 30 min­utes. On the ride to the hos­pi­tal, he slipped in and out of con­scious­ness.

“I was in so much pain,” he said. “I told my medic, ‘Hey, you need to give me some­thing. I don’t care if you punch me in the face or what­ev­er, but I’m in so much pain.’ ”

Castil­lo had mul­ti­ple lac­er­a­tions, includ­ing to his liv­er, spleen, intestines and right kid­ney. A lung was punc­tured in three dif­fer­ent areas.

After the blast, when he was dragged to a stretch­er, Castil­lo said he remem­bers look­ing down and see­ing his right leg sev­ered at the ankle. He fig­ured he might lose part of one leg, but woke up from an induced coma about a month lat­er at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to find both gone. The infec­tions had spread too quick­ly, doc­tors told him.

“I wasn’t expect­ing to see 70 per­cent of my legs gone,” he said. “Because of the infec­tion, they had to keep cut­ting off more and more and more, because of all that bad stuff they have in the dirt over in Iraq.”

He’s under­gone dozens of pro­ce­dures, and not just to the legs. Doc­tors also removed shrap­nel from his abdomen area.

“I lost count (of the surg­eries). I had so many, I was sick of surgery,” he said. “I still have a lot of shrap­nel in me. Every once in a while, I’ll get a scratch here or there ‘cause it’s try­ing to come out. It’s all over the place.”

There’s a lit­tle ball of met­al float­ing around a fin­ger in his left hand. Castil­lo said X-rays at the den­tist reveal more pieces in his head.

Castil­lo spent almost two months at Wal­ter Reed and actu­al­ly re-enlist­ed there in March 2009 from a hos­pi­tal bed, sur­round­ed by most of his fam­i­ly. He’d planned to re-enlist in Iraq before get­ting wound­ed.

“I would say it’s more frus­trat­ing than dif­fi­cult,” he said of his lengthy recov­ery. “There’s a lot of frus­tra­tion that goes with hav­ing some type of new life. Every­one has a goal in life, and then when some­thing hap­pens, it can change.”

“You can still stay on cer­tain career paths and oth­er paths you want to do in your life,” he explained. “It can be dif­fi­cult doing those things, but it’s more frus­trat­ing. There are sim­ple things that you have to try to over­come and adapt to.”

After being trans­ferred to Fort Sam Hous­ton, Texas, for reha­bil­i­ta­tion, Castil­lo said he encoun­tered oth­er sol­diers in worse predica­ments.

“Look­ing at them being able to do cer­tain things, it gives you strength,” he said. “I remem­ber see­ing a woman in San Anto­nio — she had both arms gone. She was an (explo­sive ord­nance dis­pos­al) sol­dier miss­ing both arms up high. The wounds were so high up her shoul­ders that she couldn’t have a pros­thet­ic arm.”

“See­ing some­one like that reminds you, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be com­plain­ing about cer­tain things.’ You don’t want to have some­one always help­ing you out, because they’re not always gonna (sic) be there,” he said. “In Texas, they taught (me) how to do stuff on (my) own. I had to fig­ure a lot of things out and learn how to over­come those lit­tle obsta­cles and hur­dles.”

Castil­lo was fit­ted with pros­thet­ics in May 2009. That Novem­ber, his for­mal ther­a­py end­ed and he left Fort Sam Hous­ton the fol­low­ing Jan­u­ary. He returned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord but had to clear a med­ical eval­u­a­tion board just to stay in the Army — his paper­work was approved four months lat­er.

“My focus was just to get back to my unit,” he said. “I worked real­ly hard every day as much as I could because that was my main focus — recov­ery and get­ting bet­ter so I could get back to my unit and con­tin­ue work­ing.”

Maneu­ver Cen­ter of Excel­lence and Fort Ben­ning Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Chris Hardy was the 75th Ranger Regiment’s com­mand sergeant major when Castil­lo got wound­ed in Iraq.

“His per­son­al courage and com­mit­ment is tru­ly an inspi­ra­tion to us all,” Hardy said. “He epit­o­mizes the war­rior ethos — I will nev­er quit, I will nev­er accept defeat. He sym­bol­izes the strength of the Amer­i­can sol­dier and I feel priv­i­leged to know him.”

Castil­lo said he’s dri­ven to stay in the Army and wants to reach the 20-year mark in his Army career. He said he would like to become an instruc­tor after his time with the Ranger Reg­i­ment ends.

He did a tan­dem jump at the Ranger Ren­dezvous in August 2009, only months after the ambush, and plans to return again this year. Call­ing the reg­i­ment a “broth­er­hood,” Castil­lo said he knows some of the oth­er Rangers bet­ter than his own fam­i­ly, and vice ver­sa, after all they’ve expe­ri­enced togeth­er in war.

The learn­ing process also hasn’t end­ed in his own recov­ery. Just walk­ing down­stairs, along a side­walk or grass, and down­hill can be chal­leng­ing.

“Even when it snowed in Wash­ing­ton state, just going through the snow and it being slip­pery, I don’t feel where I step until I put my weight on it,” he said. “I dri­ve, too, and that’s a learn­ing curve. My endurance and bal­ance are get­ting much bet­ter. Being able to do ran­dom chores around the house or just doing stuff at work is get­ting bet­ter. It’s got­ten eas­i­er, with time.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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